The running backs in the NFL generally have high turnover and a very short shelf life. Should teams simply stop taking them in the first round? This has been a discussion for what seems like years now. Positional value speaking, it does not make much sense at all to use a first round draft pick on a running back.
Not only is the position itself not entirely valuable in relation to team success, but the shelf life for running backs appears to be one of the shortest of any position in the NFL, and teams have found legitimate success with running backs in later rounds.
In 2020, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the lone running back taken in the first round. In 2021, Najee Harris and Travis Etienne were taken in the first round, but no running backs were taken in the first round this year.
Over the last few drafts, it does seem like teams are beginning to steer away from making a selection like this. Let’s take a look at the top ten rushers in the NFL. The top ten rushers in the NFL at running back include Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Travis Etienne, Dameon Pierce, Miles Sanders, Rhamondre Stevenson, Dalvin Cook, and Aaron Jones.
Of the top ten running backs in the NFL in yards, three of them are first round picks (Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Travis Etienne). Four of them were picked in the second round (Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Miles Sanders, Dalvin Cook)
Two were picked in the fourth round (Dameon Pierce, Rhamondre Stevenson), and one was picked in the fifth round in Aaron Jones, who was a part of a loaded running back class in 2017. Seventy percent of the top ten running backs in the NFL were not first round picks.
Moreover, Saquon Barkley is due for a contract extension this offseason. Would the Giants, who need an influx of talent on both sides of the ball, seriously fork over $15 million per year for Barkley’s services?
A good argument here is the 2017 NFL Draft, which saw a ton of quality running backs picked outside of the first round, and the two who were picked in the first round, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, have been up and down during their careers for various reasons.
Take a look at some of the running backs picked in 2017 that weren’t in the first round: Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Conner, Jamaal Williams, Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson.
Positions like edge rusher, cornerback, quarterback, wide receiver, and others are much more likely to not find quality starting talent outside of the first round. Also, take a look at the recent Super Bowl champions and their top rusher. There’s a good chance they weren’t a first round pick and didn’t rush for a ton of yards.
Obviously the position still has its place in the NFL, but it’s clear that teams need to simply stop investing first round picks in the position.